Joshua Foong, Co-Founder of bantu — Solving One Problem at a Time
“bantu is more than just a tech solution for non-profits. At its core, bantu is about how we can use the knowledge made available to us today, and transform the social sector to deliver social good more effectively.”
The setting was New York City, 2016. Dominated by big successful corporations, the latest technologies, and flushed with investment cash, the city was the capital of big dreams and bright futures. But as bantu’s co-founder Joshua Foong found out, New York City also has a far darker distinction: being the city with the second-highest homeless population in the world. With his economist background, he asked himself: how can we better use our resources and channel it towards those who need it more?
Working in the tech industry, Joshua and his co-founders wanted to combine their resolves to empower the social sector using what they know best: technology. Inspired by their experiences, the four of them hence started their own social enterprise — bantu, inspired by the Malay word for “help”. bantu is on a mission to radically develop the capabilities of non-profits, allowing them to champion their social causes using more efficient and meaningful processes. The team recently launched bantu Workspace, a management platform that allows non-profits to better manage and engage volunteers, which in turn helps them deliver more social good to their beneficiaries.
Forming the Team
The bantu team today comprises four NUS alumni, all of whom met on the NUS Overseas Colleges programme in 2016. Two of the co-founders — Nicholas Ooi and Han Lynn — were based in Silicon Valley for a year. On the other side of the United States were Janelle Lee and Joshua, both working in New York City. Despite their very different backgrounds, the team shared two things in common: everyone was working in a tech-based company, and each had a strong inclination to help the social sector.
“We were all motivated to help the less fortunate, but we had different ideas how to do it at first.” Introducing technology into the social space was not easy — the team had to identify which beneficiary could best benefit from such an intervention, and what they can do with it. This was when Joshua chipped in: “What if instead of going directly to beneficiaries, we help the helper instead?”
As a active volunteer in New York, Joshua saw many organisations often struggling to help the communities-in-need. “The staff I met were almost always under-manned and over-worked, while processes are often inefficient and slowed things down considerably.” This adversely affected the help coming from volunteers as well; many volunteers around Joshua were often poorly engaged despite their skill sets and their commitment to the cause. As a result, non-profits often face high volunteer attrition, which not only drains non-profits of precious resources and time, but also harms beneficiaries who lose trust with those who volunteer over time.
With this, the team realised it was the non-profits themselves that were very underserved by technology. In particular, volunteer management was a critical issue that could be addressed with better tech.
Today, bantu is helping 15 different volunteering organisations through their platform. Workspace helps non-profits unify many fragmented volunteer engagement processes into a single solution, and thereafter streamline operations, save countless hours on menial staff work, and reallocate their resources towards delivering more social good in the community.
Why Social Enterprise?
Joshua often gets asked by his peers on his decision to start a social enterprise. Why choose something that is difficult to monetise and easy to fail?
The answer to that is simple: “I enjoy the enormous satisfaction of solving a real problem using a business-centred approach.”
1. Solving a Real Problem
For Joshua, starting bantu meant “having the the opportunity to work on a problem directly with all my time and energy, without being told what else I should be doing instead.” It is not the freedom of being one’s own boss, but the freedom to devote oneself to a cause wholeheartedly that drives the bantu team.
But how do you know what problems to solve? For Joshua, validation is extremely important before anyone can provide the right help to the right people. “Think of a doctor: can the doctor diagnose your medical condition if he or she does not ask you questions and examine your body further? This is why at bantu, the mantra is to ask questions and seek to understand first, so that we know exactly what is the most critical need for our clients.”
2. Business-centred Approach to Doing Good
In addressing a social need, people often turn to non-profit organisations. However, why can’t a for-profit company have social good as the centre of their business mission as well?
For Joshua, there are not enough companies that make it their business to support causes. This is why social enterprises are important: they help to improve the collective good in our society, and they do so in a sustainable manner that relies on the steady stream of revenue rather than the uncertain support of donations.
Joshua quips, “When people are willing to pay for your goods or services, that is when you know there is definitely tangible value in what you do.”
In addition, the Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise (raiSE) sets down clear metrics to measure the social impact of an organisation before one can qualify as a social enterprise. As such, not only are social enterprises a sustainable model for helping others, they are also made accountable and regulated by a national body.
3. Work Satisfaction
Joshua cites his conversations with bantu’s partners as one of the most satisfying part of starting a company. These partners not only include non-profits, but also government ministries, corporate bodies, and other social enterprises.
“The conversations helps me to constantly validate the problem we are solving. But it also allows me to learn from our partners, to be updated on the recent developments in the social sector, and to never lose sight of the big picture. And of course, make friends in all sorts of places!”
It goes without saying that improving the lives of their beneficiaries gives him enormous pride and joy as well, knowing that the staff are now positioned to help their beneficiaries even better.
Always learning on the job, there is never a dull day at bantu for Joshua.
Solving one Problem at a Time
When asked if bantu will move away from volunteer management in the future, Joshua laughs. “Better to solve one problem at a time first, and solve it well. I see many companies that say they can help you solve 4 or 5 problems at once. But we are a start-up: we cannot think like that.” For example, many clients have requested for a donation platform on top of the volunteer platform, but Joshua believes that a start-up should be clear about the core of the business, and not be too eager to pivot away from a clear problem that needs to be solved first.
Joshua hopes to see more businesses coming forward to address social issues, and to bring real value into the social space that creates win-win situations for everyone. “There are so many opportunities: reducing your carbon footprint, donating away your excess food to needy families, or providing meaningful employment to the elderly. Big or small, every company can do their part to create a better society together.”
If you are inspired by bantu’s mission, or want to find out more about how you can value-add to the social sector, you can join bantu’s social hackathon at Campus Party 2018 this year! This is a world-wide conference with 65 editions across 5 continents, bringing together techies and celebrating innovation and collaboration.
bantu will be organising a social good hackathon on 7–8 July (Sat-Sun) at the event. This is in collaboration with the SGCares movement under the Ministry of Culture, Community & Youth (MCCY). Early bird participants can get discounted tickets, so do find out more at their Hackathon Facebook page. See you there!